Monday, April 23, 2012

She Came to Bhutan...Taking More Time...

A poem written by my student:

            “I am learning English
            from my English teacher
            called mis reti
            And she is from American
            she was kind minded to
            All of student in class
            VIII and also she was
            Tall and white face with a
            Long hair and white in colour

She came to Bhutan
Taking more time
To our country for, teaching us a good English
We would like to, wish long live Madam”
            -Kelzang Dorji, class VIII’B’

Kelzang couldn’t have been more correct when he said, “taking more time.” Everything here takes more time. It’s taking me more time than I wanted or expected to get things done, to figure out what I’m doing, and get adjusted here. I’ll explain…As always, a lot has happened since my last posting. It’s hard to stay on top of this because of the fickle internet connection and my schedule, but I’ll try to give a run down of the events of late and how it’s feeling to me.

Last month I went to visit Ashley in Kanglung where she is posted (a city that’s a day’s-trip east of me that has a college) and Tara made the harrowing 12-hour bus ride all the way from Bumthang to join us. This reunion happened, for the most part, because we all needed to cut loose and reconnect with people who could relate.
Ashley and Tara

On my way there, my friend Sonam Choden traveled with me to Mongar to help me get a taxi or some sort of transportation the rest of the way to Trashigang. The Bhutanese assume that if you’re a foreigner, you’re filthy rich; and so having a local with you for these types of delicate negotiations is really the only way to avoid being taken for all you’re worth. It was incredibly kind of her to go so out of her way to help me. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.  

It’s hard to get a taxi from anywhere to anywhere here. Not like in the U.S. where they go where you are pay them to go and charge per mile. Here, you have to pay per seat (there’s a set rate from town to town), rather than per mile, and if the taxi drivers are not either from where you are going or on the way anyway, then you have to pay for their trip back to wherever you both just came from. This certainly was “taking more time” than I thought it would have and we ended up searching for a way for me to get from Mongar to Trashigang for the better part of the day. I was beginning to get frustrated and disappointed.
Tara and me

Then, luckily, I ended up getting a bus. After a couple of hours of traveling we passed through Yadi, where I realized that Scott Harris, fellow BCF’er teaches (next time I’ll give him a call!) A young, beautiful lady teacher from Yadi MSS, named Ngawang, got on the bus. She immediately zoned in on me and we began talking. Ngawang was traveling to Trashigang because her 15-year-old niece had recently passed away, or as they say here, “expired” from TB. She was attending the ritualistic ceremony that is traditionally performed by family and friends beginning from the 21st day of a person’s passing—Gaywa. For 49 days the family hosts rounds of prayers, blessings (much like “puja”- traditional blessing with butter lamps), and a constant stream of relatives, friends, neighbors, and community members come pay homage to send the spirit into the next life on good terms. It is believed that the extent and effort a family puts forth to give offerings and prayers for the departed soul has bearing on their stake in the next life, as does the individual’s own actions. She told me the most saddening story about her niece’s passing. I held her hand and could feel the power and depth of her sadness. Having just met moments before, we shared some poignant energy; although I never met her niece, I was moved to tears.
Main center in Trashigang

It’s almost humorous now that I think about it: being jostled in a rickety bus along the roads of a foreign land, crying with a stranger. Whilst chewing dolma, no less!— the beetle nut and lime wrapped in banana leaf that turns your mouth red people are so fond of (I was trying to fit in). By no means do I mean the tragedy of her niece is/was funny, but it’s almost comical to think that this is my life now.  It was a bit disconcerting to hear how much she knew about all the Western teachers in Bhutan. She knew stories and locations of almost every BCF teacher, both from this year and last- way more than I was aware of. It made me realize how small this country is and how noticed our presence is. Ironically, or maybe not ironically at all, Ashley was in the process of interviewing students in her school about the passing of Ngawang’s niece. She (Ngawang’s niece, whose name clearly escapes me) made such a strong impression on her school and community, that the story of her life and untimely passing was so important to so many people it was going to be a feature article in Ashley’s school newspaper. We are all affected and connected by and to each other here.

When we got to Trashigang we hopped in a cab the rest of the way to Kanglung. Ngawang invited Ashley and me to her family’s home the next day for the Gaywa, We attended bearing incense and butter. It was a most interesting experience. The home was absolutely filled to the brink with people, very old, very young, and in between. There was a constant stream of tea coming out of the kitchen on big trays, which was manned by relatives of the host family. The family themselves were busy circulating from guest to guest. People were sitting on mats laid on the floor, packed so tightly it was awkward to walk, hard to not step on someone’s hand or kira. They were expecting us. All eyes were upon the foreigners as we entered the altar room and made our offering to the mother. Everyone watched curiously as we sat for tea and spoke (as best we could) with those sitting around us. Outside there was a tent that undulated with a constant drone of chanting and light from butter candles; the energy of Gaywa was immense. My description here is inadequate. It was an experience that will stand out in my memory forever.
Blossoming Peach tree in Kanglung

Ashley, me Sonam Wangmo
On a lighter note, the weekend was fantastic! Tara and Ashley are such wonderful people; I can’t even express how much I love and respect these ladies! It was such a wonderful thing to be in their presence. We laughed, cried, got good and drunk, had conversations, and made memories that will always stay with me. It was the kind of time and company that help me form meaning in life. Our friend Sonam Wangmo engaged us in a most interesting conversation about Bhuddism. I heard a story about a boy who was the reincarnate of a cow. She (Sonam, in a separate conversation) gave me a very momentous piece of advice: I was carping about the lack of privacy I feel in my little quarters right, smack in the middle of campus, and she sweetly, and without judgment suggested, “It sounds like a good time for you to experiment. That’s your definition of privacy, but you’re only in Bhutan once, so why not try to live in another definition of privacy, or do away with the concept altogether? And if you don’t like it, that’s ok, but this is a great opportunity for you to experiment with new and different ways of life…” Ok. Wow. Sonam, can you please just trade me brains? Without presenting a challenge or verdict to my qualms, she was gently inviting me into a new paradigm, in a very lovely, non-assuming way, I might add. This subtle suggestion packed a powerful punch. It’s hard to know how to do it, but I entirely believe in the truth of her words. Living this truism, it seems, will take me more time…

It was hard to leave people I have grown to deeply appreciate and love, but our weekend ended and it was time to figure out how to get back. This “took more time” as well and what should be a 6-hour trip took all day. At least this time I was expecting it. I came back on a Tuesday night, and rejoined school on Wednesday. Friday the Literacy Club that I am in charge of hosted it’s first event. Or, I should say, I hosted it. It was a total flop. I thought I had done a great job of planning things down to the last detail. But, like so many things here, my intention and reality didn’t align. I could elaborate, but why bother. It was embarrassing, but, also once again, like so many things recently, that experience will stick with me for the rest of my life as a learning lesson.

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation”
-Oscar Wilde

Now I had something to prove, to myself and everyone else, a week after my first blunder, and I hosted another event: a poetry recitation competition. This time, it was watertight and I was proud of how it went.  I’ve hosted another event, a spelling competition, which involved the entire student body and 100 students participated. I’m doing new things that have never been attempted here before, mostly on a wing and a prayer, since I don’t know what I’m doing either, and have been told the work I’m doing here will leave history with this school. That’s gratifying to hear. The amount of effort and planning that it takes to arrange these events could have been known only through experience (or by somebody telling me, but that’s out of the question), so I guess my previous blunder wasn’t all for naught. I have learned that if I want to ensure something gets done the way I would like, or at all, I have to leave no stone, pebble, or grain of sand unturned and be meticulous in my preparation and directions.

Enough about that. May 2nd will mark the 100-year anniversary of secular education in Bhutan. The District Education Sector is celebrating it by hosting a teacher-given concert to display the talents of the teachers here. If you know me well, you know I’m far from musically talented (if you don’t count jamming out in the car). But I told myself I wouldn’t pass up any opportunity to be involved with things here, so I went to a meeting with several other staff and teachers see how I could be part of it. I ended up accidentally volunteering to write and recite a poem in front of what might be a few thousand people! Um…I am also not a poet!! My involuntary volunteering came as a result of opting out of writing and coordinating an entire skit in English about the history of Bhutanese education. In light of my recent lessons about how it goes to try to coordinate things/people around here, I thought it more prudent to do something that I’d only have to be responsible of myself. I won’t be singing a solo or playing an instrument, so there you have it. More to come on this later, I’m sure.
Students at one of the Literacy Club events
The last little interesting development to mention is a spider situation. I’m not a squeamish girl, having the upbringing I did. If I were, I’d already be back home. But…one night I came home to the biggest spider I’ve ever seen before (outside of a tarantula that was in a plexi glass case) just sitting on my wall. It stopped me in my tracks. Body about the size of my thumb and 3-inch legs extending out beyond that. Fangs. Huge fangs. I took a picture just to document and (although the picture did not turn out very well) the light reflected off its eyes. Its eyes were big enough to reflect the flash! I had no idea what to do, so I got a stick and a bowl, reasoning that I might shoo it off the wall and then capture it in my bowl so I could scoot it outside. Amateur plan. Of course when I poked it, it quickly went right back where it came from: under my bathroom door jam. I stuffed some fabric in the crevasse from whence it came and went to bed, satisfied that we parted on amicable terms. That was all I saw of it for a couple of weeks, until the second appearance. I had had enough time to devise a better plan, so I got a broom and a bucket. But, it ran behind the bookshelf where I keep all my clothes before I could trap it. I couldn’t leave this unresolved, lest I reach for a pair of socks in the morning and it lunges at me, grabs me by the hand and tries to arm-wrestle! I asked two boys from one of my classes to come help me at lunch. It was quite a sight! They moved my shelves and there it loomed. They wanted to act tuff, like they weren’t scared, but it’s just instinct to flinch away from an arachnid that size! All three of us were jumping around, clacking buckets, rags, brooms, and whatever we could to safely get this spider contained! Finally, it worked and with a relief I sent them off with the spider in my bucket to go release it far away. I had thought it looked a little lighter in color and it seemed to have stripes I didn’t remember. But oh well, it was over. Wrong! As I moved the piece of fabric that was hanging over the shelf, another spider of the same size reared up, and hurried behind and underneath the shelves once again! Ah-ha it wasn’t my imagination! There had been two this whole time!! When the boys came back, we had to do it all again! But, no sightings since, so all’s well that ends well.

I try to go on long hikes on Sundays, and this past one I went with two of the three “monkeys” (younger brother and nephews of my friends) to a mountainside that was in full bloom. I don’t know what the name of the flowering trees are, but it was exquisitely beautiful. The smell in the air was intoxicatingly sweet. White and fuchsia petals trickled down from the dense canopy through the sunlight like little butterflies—and actual butterflies were also aplenty. It felt like something I have dreamt before. In other horticultural adventures, I planted a rose, and there is a wild cherry tomato plant outside my front door that is giving the best fruit. It’s the simple things here that are still the most touching, profound, and enjoyable.

I’ll be honest: I thought I’d come to Bhutan and easily adjust. I thought I would be nurtured by and intrinsically connected to the spirituality of my surroundings. I thought I would be so consumed with teaching, yoga, reading, meditation, and this wholesome life that I would have no option but to fully become the person I’ve always wanted to be. I thought these things would all happen with very little effort on my part because, what other option is there, really. This has not been my experience so far. While those scenarios do exist theoretically, I haven’t exactly picked up the ball that’s in my court, so to speak. It’s taking a lot of time…

I read my friend Iman’s blog recently and she spoke a lot about patience. Just her realization that she needs to be more patient with herself is admirable. In reflection, I have been fighting with myself and with my patience- or lack thereof. I’ve been frustrated with my feelings of incompetence that I don’t feel stem from true incompetence, my utter state of confusion, and the lack of urgency most Bhutanese teachers seem to have. I don’t want to become bitter or abrasive towards my co-teachers. I must learn how to balance a state of learning and teaching at the same time.

I “came to Bhutan/taking more time.”  So true!  This whole process of transition is taking time, and more time. Luckily, I have plenty; I just need to be more aware of that. I have been frustrated, overwhelmed, humiliated, and on the brink of the edge of what little sanity or dignity I came with (or have left). Then, I have a conversation, or I see a butterfly, or I listen to the river, and I come back. The universe tests us but also gives us what we need. It’s hard to be aware of that in trying moments, but I must ask myself, “Isn’t this what you came here for?” and, then, rhetorically remind myself “Yes.”

Until next time!
“Gi che lug a may” (Love to you)
-Reidi Ruth

My tomatoes

Crossing a bridge between two mountains

1 comment:

  1. Reidi, when I read your blog, I can hear your voice talking and I miss you on the other side of Bhutan. You are a truly unique gal and I love how insightful you are. Great post! You are so right about how the universe tests us but gives us what we need. This will be my new mantra for the week. LOVE YA!

    P.S. I think that I rather have my rats than a huge spider lol.